Parsing Francis, Shepherd of a Lost Sheep UPDATED

Another week, another Pope Francis interview to set the internet atwitter. I liked it better when a quiet little German scholar issued clear and carefully structured catechetical lessons instead of free-ranging, off-the-cuff interviews with a hostile press.

But then, the church isn’t here to make me comfortable.

In fact, she’s here for the opposite purpose. 

So when Francis pushes me out of my comfort zone (roughly once a week) I don’t assume the problem is Francis.

It may well be. We’re not Ultramontanists. The pope is only guarded from error on issues of faith and morals when speaking from the chair, and last I checked, the pages of left-wing publications are not the Chair of Peter. There is nothing to prevent a Francis papacy from being a disaster that requires another John Paul and Benedict to right it. Paul VI was a good, holy, and wise man, but he left us a ruin.

I don’t believe that’s the case with Francis, however. I think he has a particular style and we need to get used to the rapid change in tone. It shouldn’t come as much surprise that a Argentinian Jesuit is not a Polish Thomist Philosopher or a German Augustinian Theologian.

He’s not a scholar, he’s a pastor. I’m more comfortable with scholars, less so with the pastoral thing. I’m happy with my books and my Germans. Pastoral work has to do with getting down on the street with people in all their messy fallibility and failings, but also with the potential for beauty and faith and love.

I think that’s wonderful, but there are inherent dangers in it as well. Sometimes you need to be out there on the knife-edge taking risks in order to lure new souls to the kingdom.

We have to realize that these interviews are being perceived in different ways by people in different places of life and society. Those of us who are deeply involved in the life of the church tend to perceive the problems first: the lack of precision in theological language, the scent of relativism and reductionist thinking, the go-along-to-get-alongism, and the potential for zeitgeist-chasing.

I had a negative reaction to two things in particular in the most recent interview.

First, there was his statement about conscience: “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

True, but there is a phrase missing there: a well-formed conscience. People can follow a defective conscience right into Hell. Only a conscience properly formed and fixed on the Truth can lead us. Add to that the suggestion of moral relativism, and you have a problematic passage.

Second, there is the passage in which he dismisses proselytism:

Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.

This becomes more clear later in the interview:

It is love of others, as our Lord preached. It is not proselytizing, it is love. Love for one’s neighbor, that leavening that serves the common good.

We are not just expected to proselytize: we’re commanded to do it (Mark 16:15).

Obviously, Francis knows this, and he preaches Christ powerfully, so his criticism is leveled at a certain kind of aggressive proselytism. Since I rarely see aggressive proselytism in the Church, I have no idea why he feels the need to single it out for dismissal as solemn nonsense, except to draw the focus back to preaching in love and act over word.

It recalls the words of Jerome about St. John the Evangelist:

The Blessed Evangelist John lived at Ephesus down to an extreme old age, and, at length, when he was with difficulty carried to the Church, and was not able to exhort the congregation at length, he was used simply to say at each meeting, My little children, love one another. At last the disciples and brethren were weary with hearing these words continually, and asked him, Master, wherefore ever sayest thou this only? Whereto he replied to them, worthy of John, It is the commandment of the Lord, and if this only be done, it is enough.

The world is not our little Catholic bubble. I like my bubble. I stay in it most of the time. The classroom and the computer and the page allow to me to leave it from time to time, but the preaching and teaching required in the bubble is of a different quality to that required in the world.

Francis makes me nervous, because his words can be spun by those enemies we have within the Church and without. On the other hand, we shouldn’t get twitchy and skittish about a genuine attempt to engage non-believers and non-Catholics with unguarded language. No teachings are changed. The faith is as it always has been. The messiness of debate and dialog doesn’t alter the truth.

Those of us in the Church–we who have made the commitment to teaching and preaching the word and following Her in all things–are the 99 sheep, safe at home with our Mother. That’s not to say our salvation is assured, but merely that the shepherd doesn’t have to worry about us quite as much, for the moment.

Are we then to begrudge the shepherd when he leaves the safety and comfort of the stable to retrieve our lost brother?

UPDATE: Translation problems?

You should really check out this post by Sr. Anne. An excerpt:

If “everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them,” is the Pope saying that there is no such thing as objective truth, or objective right or wrong? This is where it is really, really helpful to know Italian: “Ciascuno di noi ha una sua visione del Bene e anche del Male. Noi dobbiamo incitarlo a procedere verso quello che lui pensa sia il Bene” is more literally (and helpfully?) translated as “Each one of us has his/her own vision of the Good or even of Evil. We must encourage him/her to move toward that which he/she sees as the Good.” The Pope is not leveling the difference between truth and untruth, right and wrong: he is saying that we all have a duty to encourage people to pursue the Good, knowing that the true Good will not fail to manifest himself, even if “through a glass darkly.”

Here’s another whopper: “The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men to instill the feeling of brotherhood.” Um, the Son of God did not become incarnate in souls. He became incarnate in human nature, in his own human flesh and blood. The Italian is ” Il Figlio di Dio si è incarnato per infondere nell’anima degli uomini il sentimento della fratellanza”: “The Son of God became incarnate to infuse into the soul of men [could say "the human soul"] the feeling of brotherhood.”

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Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.